Shaftsbury school board answers solar concerns, begin budget talks

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SHAFTSBURY >> The Shaftsbury School Board held their November meeting on Tuesday, where they outlined upcoming budget discussions, and heard questions from the public about why they turned down a solar contract that would have saved the school $8,000 annually.

The meeting, later in the month than usual as the regularly scheduled meeting would have fallen on Veterans Day, was the final meeting before the budget season begins in earnest in December. Principal Jeff Johnson made the case once again for the hiring of a math interventionist, a position that was included in the budget that was approved by voters last year, but which the school board eventually, after much debate, decided not to fill. Johnson said he did not foresee any other staffing changes. He said that the interventionist's primary responsibilities would be K-3 math, working with students who were falling behind the curve, as part of the school's new focus on multi-tiered systems of support.

Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union special education director Wendy Pierce said that most of the increases in the special education budget would come in the form of salary and benefit increases. She said that, at current estimates, the total number of paraeducator minutes required by special education students each week is projected to decrease by 7,105 in the 2016-2017 school year, largely because of six special ed. students graduating to the middle school, and only one entering Shaftsbury's kindergarten. However, she said, it is still far to early to tell if staffing changes need to be made, as three Shaftsbury pre-K students are currently being evaluated for special needs, and special ed. students can move in and out of district at any time. She said that if staffing reductions end up being necessary in Shaftsbury, the paraeducators would not lose their jobs, but could be moved to other areas of need, as they are SVSU, not Shaftsbury, employees.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, Shaftsbury resident Mike Foley had a number of questions of the vote that occurred at the board's last meeting, in which the board became the only one in the SVSU to choose not to join a solar consortium that would have allowed the district to purchase electricity credits at a discounted rate for the next 20 years. SVSU chief financial officer Rick Pembroke had referred to the deal repeatedly as a "no-brainer" that was made possible by state incentives on solar development. The consortium, made up of schools across the state, is being guaranteed a net 22 percent savings on their energy bills for the duration of the contract, according to Jim Kocsis, of the SVSU financial office. The final vote was 3-2 against joining, with chairman Fran Kinney, Larry Johnson, and Holly Bahan voting against.

Foley asked the board members to explain their reasons for voting against joining the consortium. During the initial meeting, board member Johnson expressed an ideological opposition to the project, which he had previously discussed at SVSU meetings, pointing out that subsidies provided to schools involved in this would come at the expense of taxpayers who are not involved, as they will have to pay a higher rate to make up the difference. He also expressed concern that the company that will be constructing the solar array does not yet have an agreement in place for a place to site it, making it impossible for the board to know if it would be one large installation or several smaller ones. In the scenario that the developer was not able to find a site, the consortium would be dissolved, and the members would not be charged by Competitive Energy Solutions, the consulting firm that has helped organize the consortium, as their contract calls for them to receive a percentage of the realized savings, rather than a set fee.

Kinney said on Tuesday that his decision came from a lack of available information. "For this consortium, they wanted to get everybody on board, even though there's no kind of plan," he said, "I'm not voting for anything just to get on board if there's no plan. I have no idea of how they're going to do it, where it's going to be, we don't know any of that. It's not going to be in our backyard, I guess, but I need more information to make that decision. They said, 'You have to have this done by (Nov. 5),' and I said, well, I'm not going to be rushed by that. I had some information, but not enough, and certainly not enough to have an intelligent discussion with the public."

Bahan said that she voted against it was that, "We're hearing about an $8,000 savings, but what you weren't hearing was for that savings, and I might be totally wrong, but we would have to pay $22,000 a year. To me, we'd be paying $14,000 above the $8,000 and that doesn't sound like a good value for our investment." Those numbers are indeed incorrect, based on information provided to the boards by Pembroke. The $8,000 number represented a net savings after any expenses, including the money used to purchase the credits, which is what Bahan was apparently referencing, and the percentage paid to CES.

The Shaftsbury School Board meets the second Wednesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in the library at Shaftsbury Elementary School. Full recordings of their meetings are available on Catamount Access Television, and on the station's YouTube page.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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